Living now, later

Perhaps it's a function of almost dying, perhaps it's young wisdom, perhaps it's completely normal, but there are times when I know I'm going to want to remember exactly how this feels.  There have been a few times in my life, routines that I've been in, that I've saved, on purpose, in a vault in my mind.  And I can get them out whenever I want and really feel them again.

I learned about classical conditioning for the first time in high school, but I didn't trust a single thing the teacher said, nor did any of us, when we found out his credentials included one college class in Psychology.  I spent the whole semester devising a pulley system which would dump glue water and then a bucket of feathers on his head.

The next chance I got to learn about classical conditioning, I was paying attention.  I remember all about the dogs and the bells and how it works.  Basically, the guy who devised this had a bunch of hungry dogs.  Before he fed the dogs, he would ring a bell.  The dogs associated the bell with the food, so eventually when the guy rang the bell and then didn't give the dogs food, they drooled anyway.  We're all like the dogs -- hearing a popular song from the eighth grade dance era should send us all reeling back to that time fraught with humiliation and cluelessness.  We're also not like the dogs, because we can decide to do an experiment on ourselves.  Which I do.

Indulging in my reverie, I never photographed the rain drops, but this person did.

When I was interning at a graphic design firm in Zürich in my early twenties, I had premonition that I would want to remember the twenty minute train rides that book-ended my days stuffed with design, tango dancing, strong coffee-drinking, and coming of age.  Frequently it rains in Switzerland because the clouds get stuck between the mountains, so most of the time the windows of the trains were streaked with water droplets scooting down the glass with the rhythm of the rails.  Every time the conditions were like that, I would listen to Peter Gabriel's "I Grieve" through my headphones.  The song was fittingly melancholy, terribly romantic, and beautiful like the gray landscape blurred out of the window.  And lo, whenever I miss having that gift of time in my life, time to chase thoughts, or not think at all, I play the song and am there again.

Things that come to mind, and the people who come with them :: {Portugese Bread and Garlic Soup}

Christmas tree pick-up was this morning.  We dragged ours out to the curb, and looked up and down the street at the other dejected trees patiently waiting in the January drizzle.  Christmas decorations have all been stowed and the house looks a bit empty, like it's waiting for the spring sunshine to fill the empty corners. 

This is the time of year that I wish I remembered how to knit.  I've learned a bunch of times.  Once when I was very small I managed to complete a set of wrist-warmers.  These might be a Swiss phenomenon, but if you can remember that fingerless gloves still can keep your fingers warm, imagine how hand-less gloves might keep your hands warm.  The point is, they do.  Another time I learned to knit was my freshman year in college, when one of my hall-mate's dad's taught us.  It was January term, which meant we only had to take one class, and it was pass/fail.  We had lots of time on our hands.  In the evenings, we would all gather in one room, listen to Barry White, and knit.  I have absolutely no recollection of what I was even working on.  I doubt any of us do.

My great aunt, who had a story more harrowing than most, was a great knitter.  She knit me an army of pink sweaters when I was little.  I especially liked it when she chose yarn that had sparkles in it.  Throughout her difficult life she managed to maintain a child-like joyfulness, so I wouldn't be surprised if she chose the pink sparkly yarn for her benefit, as well as mine.  She was also a great maker of Schnitzel, and I fondly remember going over to her apartment to eat a huge steaming platter of it, decorated with lemon slices and served with potatoes, bread, and a salad.  After lunch, she would knit while all the grown-ups talked.  She's the only person I think I'll ever meet who actually kept her current knitting project tucked in her bosom.  This fascinated me as a young girl, and it was as good as a magic trick when she would reveal first one arm, then two, then the entirety of a full-sized sweater from her voluminous cleavage.

Tante Emmy and Onkel Paul ready for feasting.  Note the amount of Schnitzel she prepared for three people.

She left our family a great legacy -- she was the only one of her siblings who was strong enough to recount the stories from the war, the only one brave enough to face life with perpetual cheer and generosity.  Perhaps one of these Januaries I'll relearn how to knit again, perhaps when my daughter's old enough to do it, too.  Until that happens, I have a big box of pink sweaters, some with sparkles, that I hope Tante Emmy sees my little girl wearing, wherever she is.  They would have had a good time together, those two.

Portuguese Bread and Garlic Soup
This soup is many things: it is fast, frugal, a good use for stale bread, delicious, simple, comforting, and healthy.  As with most simple things, the quality of the ingredients is crucial, but these are all things that you either have on hand, or are easy to find.  You can have dinner on the table in 10 minutes.  Adapted, barely, from The Mediterranean Kitchen.
Cut thick slices of day-or-two-old crusty bread, a piece or two per person.  Heat a soup pot (or a small pot if it's just you) over medium-high heat and add a pretty generous glug of good olive oil (probably about 1-2 tablespoons per person).  When the oil is hot, fry the bread in a single layer (do as many batches as it takes), on both sides, til nice and golden.  Remove bread and rub with the cut side of one clove of garlic (per serving).  Place bread in soup bowl.  Add another glug of olive oil to the pan, roughly chop the garlic you just used, and add it to the pot.  Garlic burns quickly, so stir it around for only about 30 seconds, or until fragrant.  Add a soup-bowl-full (per serving) of chicken or veggie broth (homemade if possible) to the pan and bring to a simmer.  Lower heat to medium and crack an egg (per serving, and one at a time) into a cup or small ramekin and carefully slide into the simmering broth.  Use a spoon to nudge the whites around the yolks.  Cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the whites are completely opaque.  Repeat with as many eggs as you need, but cook no more than two eggs at a time.  Ladle an egg into each soup bowl, adjust the seasoning of the broth with salt and pepper to taste. Divide the broth evenly amongst your soup bowls.  You can enjoy this as is, or you can garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro, red pepper flakes, or Parmesan cheese.

Yearning :: {green pesto}

A typical summer evening in 1984.
When you've lived in more than one place, you always miss the other place when you're not there.  And when you're there, you miss the first place.  I can't think of a time where I've felt such a distinct emptiness, a hole that I know can be filled by being in that first place. That picture up there is where I spent my first six years, playing amongst the lines of drying laundry in the sheep pasture, cooling off in cow fountains, eating purple clover in the meadow, going with my brother to collect the evening milk in our pale green bucket with the red wooden handle, our mother skimming the cream off the top.  The cream tasted like the wildflowers I would gather by the armful everyday. 

One summer evening, when the hills made undulating shadows fall across the meadow, I followed our cat into the apple orchard.  My back toward the house and my face toward the darkening forest, I imagined myself an orphan, miles from home, following this cat as my guide.  I trudged up the hill behind him, the breeze quickening, and a tingle of danger swirling around my insides. The cat leapt up a tree and I huddled at its base, ready to sleep there. I started wondering how cold it would get in the night, if the cat would leave without me, if....and just when my imagination started to get the best of me, I turned around to the winking lights of the farmhouse, and saw the outline of my brother against the lights, swinging the milk bucket in his hands.  "Phe," he shouted, breaking my reverie, "Mama says it's time for dinner."

I know the yearning has gotten especially poignant because I want to share this with my daughter.  I want her to see cows and sheep and wide open spaces everyday.  I want her swimming pool to be a fountain in a pasture, and I want to feed her cream that tastes like flowers.

A word about my cooking, since this is the first food post (from here on out consider yourself warned): I don't follow recipes, and therefore I'm not going to be able to tell you in tablespoons and pounds how much of anything goes into anything.  All you have to do is pay attention to what you're doing, and think about what you're doing, the flavors, the textures, etc., and you'll be fine.  Really being present when you cook is what makes it so enjoyable and rewarding, anyway.  Enjoy this part of your day.

Green Pesto with Whole Wheat Pasta and Zucchini

Think about pesto this way: you know how in the winter you use up all the odds and ends in your fridge in a big pot of soup?  What vegetable soup is to winter, pesto is to summer.  Think beyond the basil, parm, pine nut version and use (almost) whatever's in your fridge.  Throw some vegetables in the pasta pot like the Italians do.  Is there a better reason for doing anything?

{Serves at least one adult and a toddler.  Easily doubles/triples.}

Put your big pot of pasta water on to boil.  Salt it.

Now make your pesto.  I had some spinach that I needed to use up, and I have a huge shrub of neglected basil in a pot by my kitchen door. You'll need three generous handfuls of green stuff. Rinse it and toss it in your food processor/hand blender cup/mortar and pestle. Don't worry about drying it off because the water actually makes it nice and creamy. We'll add more water later, in fact. When you're selecting your greens, keep your flavors and pungency in mind. Mint, for example, is delicious in pesto, but you'll want it at about a 1:2 or 3 ratio to something else, like arugula, or even peas.  Now throw in a couple cloves of garlic.  I used two small ones.  Next come nuts.  I used a handful of pistachios.  I've also used walnuts to great effect.  I never use pine nuts because I'd rather spend that amount of money on wine.  This line of thinking stops when it comes to Parmesan, though.  Don't bother with anything but the real thing.  If you don't have/want Parmigiano Reggiano, then by all means try something else in your pesto.  Feta would be delicious with the arugula and mint version we were talking about earlier.  You'll need a big handful of cheese, whatever it is.  Add several healthy glugs of olive oil, just enough to get your blades moving through all your ingredients.  Now if your pesto seems dry, add some more olive oil.  Leave it just a bit dry, though, so that we can add some of the pasta water at the end.  The pasta water is the trick.  Taste and add salt if you need it and pepper if you want it.

Your water should be boiling right now.  Add about third of a box of your pasta of choice.  I like the corkscrews because they catch a lot of the pesto.  Some Italians also put a cut up potato or two and green beans in the water to cook with the pasta.  I didn't have either of those things, so I grated half of a medium zucchini which I added raw when I tossed everything together.  Don't overcook your pasta.

Before you drain the pot, get a ladle and add a splash of the pasta water to your pesto.  Give it another pulse to bring everything together.

Toss your pasta and veggies (now would be the time to add raw stuff, like the zucchini I did, or tomatoes would be great, too) with the pesto.  You can serve this with extra cheese on top, or not.

Big fork, little fork.